When Sister Jane Mary Duke considered taking her vows more than 53 years ago, her brother Paul told her one thing.
“If you’re going to do this … although it may become difficult and rough, you don’t go in with the idea ‘Well I can always leave,’” Paul said.
Now that it has been more than five decades since Duke first took her vows of chastity, poverty and obedience in the Roman Catholic order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, she said her brother’s words have sustained her and urged her to stand by her commitment.
And, if given the chance, she would take the vows again.
Duke, 72, has renewed her vows each morning inside the apartments and communal housing where she’s lived in Maryland and now in West Pittston.
She works part time as a pastoral associate for ministry formation at Queen of the Apostles Parish in Avoca where she helps organize ministries and train parishioners to serve in the church.
Queen of the Apostles is one parish made from combining Ss. Peter and Paul and St. Mary’s in 2011.
Duke worked to stitch together the two churches shortly after returning to her hometown from 40 years in Maryland, where she directed religious education for children, and later, realizing that parents, too, needed guidance, directed adult faith-building classes.
One of her first missions in Avoca was to unite the new parish.
“It is one parish. You have to treasure the old, treasure the traditions and customs of each one, but you have to create new ones because it’s another journey,” Duke said. “If you don’t change, you will be changed.”
Her commitments to chastity and obedience are more simple to explain: abstain from marriage; listen to your superiors and to the will of God, but when it comes to poverty, Duke said, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with being short of money.
“All three vows are a challenge,” Duke said. “Poverty to me is making choices.”
In the religious definition of poverty, an individual gives up having possessions or a stable home in exchange for a stronger community.
When she is not working at Queen of the Apostles, Duke spends her days as a caretaker for a fellow nun, Sister Helene, who suffered a stroke years ago and now lives in Our Lady of Peace Residence in Scranton.
For Duke, poverty was returning to the Wyoming Valley to see that her friend of 40 years lived comfortably after the stroke. This forced her to leave a more comfortable position in Maryland, where she had become part of the community’s fabric.
In humble service
Queen of the Apostles pastor, Rev. Phillip Sladicka, said Duke was instrumental in creating unity among parishioners after the merge and helping to bring together the new church’s pastoral council.
The nature of Duke’s work means she often doesn’t get credit for her efforts, Sladicka said. She’s responsible for bringing up leaders in the church and preparing them for service.
Like many sisters in the region, Duke does not wear the traditional habit of monastic nuns. Instead she dresses simply and she is able to share God’s love more effectively without it.
“Women religious should not be defined by what they wear, we have so much more to offer,” Duke said. “Uniforms of any kind draw attention to people. I’m still who I am and what I’ve given my life for.”
The Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, marked an extraordinary pivoting point for Catholic church.
Women religious have grown increasing mobile since Pope John XXIII urged the church to “discern the signs of the times” during the council, a gathering in which he called the church to update its old traditions. Duke was still in training and had yet to make her final vows when the council concluded.
After that edict, nuns began to act more independently as their focus shifted from keeping within their limitations, to what opportunities are available because of their vows.
Before the Vatican Council, nuns were submissive and quiet. They followed strict and ordered lives. They lived by the chiming convent bell.
Now each sister has the opportunity to pursue leadership and contribute individually to the church’s ongoing mission.
Duke, however, sought kinship with the sisters, when was oblivious to the change soon to happen. She said, despite her family and friends objections that she would be throwing out any opportunity for a family and stability, she could not dispose the urge to live a life devoted to God.
“The reason that I entered religious life is because I had this inexcusable feeling of being drawn to it,” Duke said. “I never thought about 50 years. I was just living, living in the moment.”